Amid Flint's Water Crisis, Schools Chief Is a Calm Force
Well before the ink dried on his contract, Flint schools Superintendent Bilal Tawwab knew he was taking one of the toughest jobs in the state.
But he never saw the hardest part coming.
Within weeks of Tawwab taking the helm, a local pediatrician held a press conference to detail widespread lead poisoning among the city’s children. Lead saturated Flint’s water supply after the city switched from the Detroit water system to the Flint River to cut costs.
Knowing the potentially devastating effects of lead toxicity on children, Tawwab and his school board moved swiftly to shut off the water in every district building.
LESSONS FROM THE LEADER
- Stay Calm: How leaders respond to a crisis determines how others will respond. Under pressure, allow time to make the right decisions.
- Keep the Focus on Teaching: Leaders must continue to invest in teachers and classrooms even in a crisis. That’s where what we do for students matters most.
- Set Clear Goals: Relentlessly pursue the priorities you’ve set with your team even amid challenging circumstances you don’t expect.
That decision came before city, state, and federal officials declared states of emergency in this city of 99,000, before Flint’s water crisis gained national and international attention, and before the deluge of water bottles and other aid threatened to overwhelm the district.
It marked the start of a star-crossed first year that saw Tawwab host President Barack Obama, testify on Capitol Hill, and serve as the chief advocate for thousands of children already suffering under the strains of poverty and poor-performing schools.
“As superintendent, you know eventually you’re going to get to that space where you are engaging folks at the national, state, and local level,” Tawwab says. “But all in the first year? Oh no, I never saw that coming.”
The water crisis continues to take a toll on Flint’s youngest residents: Students are in the midst of their second school year relying on rationed bottled water, eating only fruit they can peel, and avoiding tap water like the plague.
Michigan’s attorney general alleges that four former Flint officials, two ex-city managers and two public works administrators, conspired to operate the city’s water treatment plant when it wasn’t safe to do so. Judges have authorized criminal charges against them and at least nine state-level employees as the state’s probe of the crisis continues.
Amid the confusion, Tawwab has worked furiously to instill calm and confidence.
Photo: Brett Carlsen for Education Week
“You have all these eyes on you, and all these ears are listening to what you’re going to say,” he says. “I just learned to listen more and allow myself the time to process and be able to say, ‘Let me give that some thought.’ ”
Since Flint turned off its taps in fall 2015, hundreds of schools in dozens of districts have identified similar problems. From coast to coast, lead-contaminated water emerged as a problem aggravated by aging buildings and plumbing, exacerbated by tight school repair budgets.
The toxic tapwater in Flint has only compounded the challenges the city and its school system face.
Few urban centers were so thoroughly pummeled by the forces of deindustrialization and urban decay as the Vehicle City, a town once fueled by General Motors jobs. Now many of those jobs are gone, poverty is pervasive, and few cities are more violent per capita.
The school system flatlined financially as parents fled in droves for suburban schools and charters, taking their children and state per-pupil funding with them. At the peak of the city’s manufacturing boom, Flint had 54 school buildings and upwards of 40,000 students. Four decades later, only 11 of those buildings remain open, and enrollment has dipped below 5,000, dropping more than 60 percent in the past decade.
Barbara Markle has had a bird’s-eye view of the fall of the Flint schools for decades, first as a state education department administrator and now as an assistant dean at Michigan State University’s college of education.
With $2 million in support from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Michigan State’s office for K-12 outreach coordinates dozens of specialists and faculty members who help out in Flint schools and the district’s central office, working on everything from improving teaching to helping the district meet its regulatory requirements with the state.
Superintendent Tawwab “really inherited a district that was in a state of disrepair,” Markle says. “He’s the person who really held this together.”
Struggling schools and challenging circumstances are nothing new to Tawwab, 43. Prior to Flint, Markle worked with Tawwab in his hometown of Detroit, where he was an assistant superintendent, overseeing dozens of priority schools—so-called because they’re among the bottom 5 percent academically in the state.
Tawwab worked his way up through the ranks in Detroit with a reputation for a steady, data-driven approach to boosting student achievement, says Jo Ann Andrees, who works with Michigan State and the state education department on school turnaround efforts.
Under Tawwab’s watch, half the priority schools in Detroit came off the state’s poorest-performing list within 18 months. While that number fluctuated over time, he demanded that teachers give the students their best in the classroom to counteract the challenges they faced outside of school.
“We can’t give excuses. Some people want to love on these kids so much, and I get that part, but a part of me says, ‘Don’t love on them so much that you decrease expectations,’ ” Tawwab says.
Photo: Rachel Woolf for Education Week
He carried that approach 70 miles north on Interstate 75 to Flint, where he oversaw academics in his first year as superintendent in Flint. This past fall, the district stemmed the enrollment decline, losing fewer students than anticipated, and posted modest gains for 3rd and 6th grade students on Measures of Academic Progress tests.
“[Parents are] not giving us a pass. They’re not giving us an out,” he says. “With the water crisis, it’s probably just a greater sense of urgency.”
Tawwab, a long-distance runner, had his resolve and stamina tested by the water crisis, and behind closed doors, that veneer of confidence and calm was strained.
“He was in crisis mode for quite some time,” says Flint school board President Harold Woodson.
He often sent Andrees, his mentor and executive coach through Michigan State, texts at 4 a.m., seeking advice.
Leenet Campbell-Williams, a former colleague in Detroit, remembers the late-night conversations where she talked him through some “knee-buckling moments,” when he felt the fate of the district—and its children—rested on his shoulders.
Campbell-Williams says his greatest strengths are his willingness to listen and rely on others’ help.
A Steady Hand
As fallout from the water crisis widened, federal agencies supplied funding to open more Head Start classrooms, to support children in special education, and to staff more schools with nurses, counselors, and social workers to deal with the repercussions from the lead. Tawwab also developed a rapport with the Mott Foundation and other philanthropic organizations, churches, and the arts community to build a base of support.
Although he seeks counsel and aims to find consensus, he doesn’t always agree with it. He’s turned down aid and turned away researchers and often spends more time fielding parent complaints than wooing donors.
“To be a partner isn’t always to do what everybody wants you to do,” says Kimberly Roberson, the program director for Mott’s Flint-area program. “He understands that.”
You need some type of reminder or something saying, ‘Let’s keep fighting the good fight for these kids.’
While he’s amassed widespread support, Tawwab’s leadership hasn’t gone unchallenged.
The ACLU of Michigan is suing the district on behalf of families pushing for adequate services for the thousands of children exposed to lead through the water supply.
The class action alleges that the district is violating the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by not providing ongoing screening or timely referrals for learning disabilities. The 11 families named in the suit have demands for the state, county, and district that includes health and educational screenings, special education services, universal pre-K, and changes to current discipline approaches; Flint has a much higher suspension rate for special education students than the state average.
Rather than placing the onus solely on Flint, the lawsuit calls on the state and county to lend more support to the district. Some of the concerns outlined in the lawsuit may have arisen from the ACLU’s consultations with Tawwab.
“The ACLU contacted me to say, ‘How can we support you? This is criminal.’ ” Tawwab says. “I have engaged in meaningful conversation with folks from the ACLU. Many of the things that they’re asking of us, we’re already doing.”
Children are at greatest risk from lead exposure, and school is where they spend much of their early lives, but no one knows what will happen to those who have yet to enter kindergarten.
Already, nearly 15 percent of the district’s students have been identified with special education needs, many of which were diagnosed before the crisis. While experts say the high number of students with cognitive disabilities is likely the result of many factors, not just lead exposure, it’s clear the school system will face additional challenges in the years ahead.
Tawwab keeps two framed pictures on his desk: one of his meeting with President Obama. The other is him with a group of male high school students who shared with him their tales of broken homes and missed opportunities and their hopes for the future.
Last year, he kept that photo next to his computer and urged his principals and central-office administrators to follow his lead: Find a picture of a child they’ve mentored or met in school as a reminder of their mission.
“It came in handy, especially dealing with [the] water crisis, because some of those days were crazy,” Tawwab says.
“You needed some type of reminder or something saying, ‘Let’s keep fighting the good fight for these kids.’ ”